Full Force Gale

11:35 p.m. Sept. 6

Lon Grahnke was my mentor.

He was a former entertainment editor and TV critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. He died Sept. 1 in a Chicago nursing home. The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Lon was 56.

He had a very strong work ethic. He would not approve of David Letterman taking so much vacation time, which is another reason I am in front of a computer now.

Lon had a grand sendoff tonight at a church in suburban Chicago. Lon was also an actor and he would have loved how the church was standing room only. The church staff was scurrying for extra folding chairs and hymnals. Lon was a huge Van Morrison fan and his family requested songs like “Into The Mystic,” and “Haunts of Ancient Peace,” which was played during communion. “Full Force Gale” was played as the crowd filed out of the church. During the reception, Lon’s oldest son Kurt smiled and said, “I never thought I’d hear Van Morrison in church!” That’s the Grahnke way—getting things done.

You need not be from the Chicago area to appreciate Lon. No matter where you are reading this, if you love the written word and old school newspaper characters you might want to read on. Think Lou Grant meets Verne Gagne (Lon was a wrestling fan).

I’m going to hit the road alone tomorrow for a travel story somewhere in Wisconsin. Or maybe Iowa. Don’t know exactly where I’ll wind up. I’m loading the car up with Van and I will test the speed limit. “Caravan”—turn it up, turn it up!! Before I take off, a few people asked me to post the comments I made in remembrance of Lon tonight. I wouldn’t do this unless I thought a reader might learn something. I spent 20 years with Lon.

I learned a lot…….

Lon Grahnke shaped journalism careers.

He built confidence within young reporters.

He paid attention to detail.

After all, he was the son of a carpenter.

Lon was in my thoughts early Sunday as I drove down Chicago Avenue. I passed an abandoned movie house in my neighborhood. The morning sun hit the old Hub Theater like a spotlight. I thought how Lon was as big as the legacy of that theater. He was drama and comedy. He was tough and he was a softie. He knew how the west was won, he felt life on the waterfront.

Lon took chances. He took a chance on me in 1981 when he was editor of the Suburban Sun-Times. I walked into his office in Elk Grove Village with some newspaper clippings, a powder blue clip-on tie and no college degree. I was a project. Lon was game. He hired me. For the next several months we hit on a familiar groove; we would have a fierce argument on one day and on the next day we would be compatriots working toward a common goal: to put out the best newspaper possible. Lon was the first editor of the Sun-Times “Weekend Plus” section. One time I wanted to write about the worst jukebox in Chicago. Lon didn’t like that idea. He wanted readers to experience the best possible world. But Lon always let me find my voice. He did not add words to change the context of my copy. He polished with respectful precision.

Lon drilled the art of fact checking into my head. I had spent several years in local journalism before the Suburban Sun-Times and had never screwed anything up –much. But Lon insisted that after conducting an interview, it was okay to call a subject back a second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth time to make sure everything was correct. I had been reluctant to do that. Lon made me better.

He was an endless source of information. When Lon wrote about Jimbo’s near U.S. Cellular Field, he knew that in 1963 Dave “Swish” Nicholson’s mammoth home run landed in the park across the street from tavern. You could fact check anything on movies, theater, sports and music with Lon.

He was the prototype for Google.

Over the years Lon became my mentor and friend. We shared admiration for Van Morrison, we made annual bets on the Cubs (me) and the White Sox (Lon). One night after deadline we went to the Stay Out All Night Disco in Stone Park (a wrestler’s hangout), every Christmas time we would talk about “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

But I’m just one person.

Lon hated one source stories. He thought that was poor journalism—it was just one person’s opinion and it was lazy. There are many angles in every house.

* Last Thanksgiving, after learning of Lon’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, former Sun-Times TV critic Dan Ruth paid tribute to Lon in the Tampa Tribune. Ruth wrote of his creative battles with Lon and concluded, “In the end, though, he possessed the truest virtues for an editor. You could always trust him.” Ruth was right. Lon was not myopic. Lon trusted us. He was an advocate for his writers.

* Former Sun-Times entertainment writer and current freelance writer Lynn Voedisch was hired by Lon at the Suburban Sun-Times. He believed in Lynn when she had doubts about her abilities. His careful editing allowed for Lynn’s voice to shine through. To this day, Lynn cannot think of a time when Lon told her she couldn’t write what she felt about a subject. His unswerving loyalty—especially to those of us who were with him at Suburban Sun-Times–is something none of us will forget.

* Joe Pixler was “Weekend Plus” editor under Lon during the late 1980s. One time Lon gave Joe a picture of three chimpanzees. Joe’s assignment was to identify the three chimps–from left to right. Anything less, as Lon would explain in red ink, would be “woefully incomplete.” Earlier this week Joe said, “I don’t recall those chimps names, but I do remember Lon’s lessons in precision communication.”

* Chicago artist and radio talk show host (and my favorite raconteur) Tony Fitzpatrick sent me an e-mail on Saturday. He said he and his “Drive-In Movie Reviews’ co-host Buzz Kilman got into a dust-up with Lon after Lon panned a movie which they liked.

Fitzpatrick wrote, “Well, the next thing you know Lon calls us and informs us of our bad taste in films and implies that we’re not so bright. We wound up agreeing with him and had a pretty good laugh over it. From time to time we’d chew the fat a bit and talk about the union at the Sun-Times—which he was passionate about. He saw the union as being about ‘fair play’. Lon was very interested in what was fair and equitable for those who actually put out the paper every day. I think of him as old school. The paper held a sacred trust with the public—and I believe Lon held that trust like a beacon of light. He was one of the good guys.” How good a guy was Lon? He retired from the Sun-Times in 2001 because Alzheimer’s was closing in on him. But in 2004, as we worked to secure a new contract, Lon showed up to join us in our final round of informational picketing at the old 401 N. Wabash building. Lon was smiling.

* Gwen (Lon’s wife) met Lon in 1978 in a production of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ at the Village Players in Oak Park. Lon was cast as Teddy Brewster, the zany nephew who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt and who would run up the stairs shouting, “Charge! Charge the blockhouse!,” like the real Teddy in the Spanish American War. As their relationship blossomed, Lon and Gwen talked a lot about writing. His pronouncements will be with Gwen for the rest of her life. Gwen became more direct and less afraid to say something plain and simple. Lon’s respect for Gwen’s writing mattered a great deal. Whenever Gwen was working on an editing project of on one of her books, Lon was great to have around. You could read him a messy sentence and he would fix it in a few seconds. For Lon, every block of copy was that blockhouse.

* Chicago Tribune associate metro editor Kaarin Tisue was at the Sun-Times between 1992 and 1997 when she worked with Lon. He knew Kaarin collected figurines of penguins. For many years Lon had a framed cartoon of penguins that hung on his office wall, along with the pictures of his family. He gave the penguin cartoon to Kaarin. Lon took time to to learn about his compatriots. Last year Mike Veeck, the son of beloved White Sox owner Bill Veeck, wrote a book called “Fun Is Good (How to Create Joy & Passion in Your Workplace and Career),” which laments the loss of human touch in the office. Lon made those connections. He worked at it…and he enjoyed working at it!

Lon was a big fan of Charles Kuralt’s dignified “Sunday Morning” program. In May, 1994, Lon wrote an extensive tribute to Kuralt when he retired from CBS-TV. Lon told his readers how Kuralt closed his “Sunday Morning” show with a tranquil moment of natural beauty. Lon wrote, “We can’t reproduce a gurgling mountain stream or the cry of a bald eagle on this page, but we leave you with the last lines of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in honor of a man who brought poetry to TV news.” Then Lon used this excerpt:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the road less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.”

Lon Grahnke led a caravan of Chicago journalists down a similar unique path where no small detail is bypassed/where passion grows as tall as oak trees/and where you walk steadfast into difficult winds. Because of that, he made all the difference.

And that’s a fact.

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